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Addicts of the Internet

August 3, 2015

"It's tearing our family apart. It's ruining our marriage -- I feel like I do not exist. I can't get my child to stop."  


This quote isn't referencing an addiction to heroin, prescription pills, or alcohol; rather, it's referencing the ever-growing addiction to technology and screen time among adolescents.  (This addiction does not exclude adults, as the constant need to be "plugged in" to work through email has become a startling reality.)  Clinical psychologist Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair identifies symptoms of this addiction, "the signs of tech and Internet dependence or addiction include obsessive or compulsive gaming, social media or Internet activity; and heightened restlessness, irritability, anger, anxiety or withdrawal when access to it is limited or denied."


'Internet addiction' is not yet a clinical diagnosis in the United States, but the amount of time spent staring at screens, whether through our smartphones, iPads, or computers, is troubling.  The Kaiser Family Foundation researched how much time adolescents spend with technology, and in 2010 found that: “the average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Those numbers are from 2010, so it is safe to assume they've increased, especially with the introduction of social media giants like Snapchat and Instagram.  This addiction is not just a problem for youth in the United States, it is also a growing problem in China and South Korea.  In fact, China is the first country to classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder.  In South Korea, the government estimates that roughly one in 10 children, between the ages of 10 and 19 are addicted to the Internet.  (PBS recently aired a documentary titled "Web Junkie" and it focused on an Internet rehabilitation center in Beijing.)  


How did we get to this point?  Why can't we detach from our devices?  Well, for children it could stem from them using technology excessively at such a young age.  No longer is the television the main babysitter, it is now the iPad or iPhone.  (How many times do we see parents hand children technology while in public to keep them under control?)  At that point, screen time becomes an integral part of a child's life and they may feel as though it is natural.  Moving from children to adults, how common is it to be out to eat and see your friend or spouse staring at their screen, disconnected from the present moment?  My uncle, who works at Villanova University, said the most dangerous times of day are during the changing of classes.   He says everyone is walking with their heads down staring at their screens, trying to catch up on what they missed while in class.  Even Kevin Lynch, the designer of the Apple Watch, is worried about our ability to detach, "“We’re so connected, kind of ever-presently, with technology now.  People are carrying their phones with them and looking at the screen so much.”


Our culture's addiction to technology is not going away anytime soon, and because of that it is up to us to develop strategies to help us detach from something that is becoming increasingly normal in society.  Brian Chen, author of Always Ondescribed a few strategies to help us step away from our devices and enjoy the moment.  He recommends using the "Do Not Disturb" feature on your iPhone when you sleep, as well as utilizing airplane mode during meals so you are not constantly distracted by texts, phone calls, or emails.  These are simple solutions that he said can make a difference to being conscious on how connected we are with technology.  The last solution I found useful was referenced in a TIME Magazine article published over a year ago.  It focused on the "Mindful Revolution" and identified the impact mindfulness can have on our technology fueled lives.


The article introduced a new school of thought on how we deal with detaching from technology.  For me, the most ideal solution was signing up for Mindful Schools (Which offers a six-week online course.) The school describes mindfulness as, "maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. It is also a set of techniques and methods for systematically developing this awareness. The practice of mindful awareness has a variety of well-documented impacts, including a reduction in toxic stress, an increase in emotion regulation, and an improvement in sustained attention, focus and executive functioning."  The course is somewhat pricey ($125 for 6 weeks) but the skills gained will be invaluable as our society becomes even more technologically focused.  (I signed up for the September course, so I'll write a follow up article pointing out the main concepts I learned.)


Rehabilitating from a technology addiction is not easy.  It's unlike an addiction to drugs or alcohol because technology is everywhere and used by everyone (in some capacity).  So let's reexamine the role technology plays in our day-to-day activities, and maybe we'll learn to put down the screen and enjoy the people and sights in front of us.  




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